Summary: We don’t like our enemies receiving mercy, but God is gracious to all who repent.
When we read of the prophet Jonah many of us go away thinking, “what a fool!” What a selfish fool!” But what many of us don’t realise is that our reaction to the prospect of our enemies getting away with it is exactly the same as Jonah’s. There was one kid in my class at primary school who would constantly get me into trouble for things I hadn’t done. And when I was copping it he’d sit there with this smarmy look on his face, enjoying the spectacle (as you can see I’m still bitter about it). Then one day he actually got caught out for once. He was asked to stay back after class at lunchtime and I deliberately dawdled around outside so I could hear him get what was coming to him. Now you might say that’s just a childish attitude – and it is – but that doesn’t mean most adults don’t think the same thing. When it comes time for a state election or when a particularly serious crime is committed, the media, politicians, your average joe in the street, they all go up as one to demand the harshest penalty possible. We don’t want child-killers, rapists and terrorists to receive mercy! But the real question is – does God?
Jonah clearly didn’t want God’s mercy to be shown to the Assyrians in Nineveh. When God commanded him to preach to Nineveh back in chapter one, Jonah instead turned right around and went the other direction – instead of heading east to the Assyrian capital Nineveh, he went to the port of Joppa intending to sail across the Mediterranean probably to Spain. Now in chapter one we’re not told exactly why Jonah does this – that becomes clear later. But what we can see is that his attempt to run away from God is futile. God sends a storm, Jonah gets swallowed by a great big fish and gets vomited up back where he started. His experience inside the fish has taught him that salvation comes from God. As he says in 3:6, “to the roots of my mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me forever. But you brought my life up from the pit O LORD my God”.
So, Jonah obeys God’s command when it is given a second time and heads to Nineveh. The trouble for Jonah, though, is that he still doesn’t really want to go. The reason that he had for not wanting to preach to Nineveh in the first place hasn’t changed. God has told him to go to warn the Assyrians about a coming judgement so that they might repent. But Jonah doesn’t want them to repent. He hates the Assyrians. He wants them to burn under the fire of God’s wrath. These are not the people of God, they’re Gentiles. They are enemies of Israel and, a few years after Jonah, will come and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. So when the Ninevites do repent and God does show compassion on them, Jonah is angry and bitter: JNH 4:1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Now, what sort of messenger would this sort of attitude make him? He obeys God the second time round, but it’s obvious from the beginning of chapter 4 that he’s doing so only begrudgingly. Nineveh was a very major city in the ancient world – 120000 people according to 4:11. Imagine this lone Israelite walking around the city for three days and every so often half-heartedly saying “forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned”.No glitz, no glamour, no amazing signs, not even any stirring poetry like Amos or Isaiah. Imagine saying the same thing in Sydney – what sort of reception would you expect to receive? But look at the reaction of the Ninevites – vs. 5 The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. Despite this unimpressive delivery, they are struck by God’s message. And not just some of them – all of them. When the news reaches the king he gets up off his throne, rips of his royal clothes and sits down in the dust.
Your average pagan reading this story would probably be thinking – Jonah must have been one impressive guy! No wonder God wanted him to do the job so much! That’s our typical human response, isn’t it?